Saturday, August 29, 2020

Favorite Books of 2019

These books stood out for me in 2019. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one.

After the Blue Hour by John Rechy (novel)
This is a thrilling, paranoic, meta 200-page slow burn that I could not put down. I dig his style.

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva (short stories)
Characters on seemingly impossible journeys, some magically realistic, and at times frightening. The writing is straightforward in the way a fable is, both in words and how the story unfolds. Reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado, but politer. I am drawn to these.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (novel)
Shades of gray abound in this tale of young marriage and wrongful incarceration. Emotional complexity is an understatement. No easy answers. Stunning.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter (craft of writing)
So well written. He is a master of providing cogent examples of his theses and statements. I learned a ton and hope to apply some concepts to my own writing. I also want to read many of the books he uses for examples.

Bed-Stuy Is Burning by Brian Platzer (novel)
A page-turner that makes you think it will be about the injustice of gentrification, told as a cautionary tale, but it turns out that the leads are like the Macbeths. Almost like a satire. Fascinating cultural dissection.

Black Jesus and Other Superheroes by Venita Blackburn (short stories)
A mixture of very short and long stories, but those that are longer and have a more straightforward narrative are quite magical. Characters having to make the better of bad decisions. Most of the characters are black, living in Arizona. From different walks of life. Thwarts expectations.

Block Print Magic by Emily Louise Howard (art technique)
Much inspiration found in this book, especially technique: multifold booklets, multiple colors.

The Book by Keith Houston (nonfiction)
Well researched, excellent scholarship. The book in all its forms, from papyrus to parchment to paper (and pixels). It inspires me to make my own book.

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux (poetry)
These relatable poems made me pause and contemplate each. Existential but not metaphorical. The poet is pretty direct. The narrator/voice looks back to a working-class past. I look forward to reading these poems again. Provocative cover!

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz (essays/memoir)
I am overcome by how much I identify with the author’s words. This book has left me shook but oh so woke. How little has changed in the twenty-eight years since its publication. O Saint David, the sage, the warrior, the martyr for us all.

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard (historical fiction)
Quiet story of unspoken desire between Abraham Lincoln and his bedmate, Joshua Speed. Then there’s Mary Todd, who tries to understand Lincoln as others help her to woo him. No sex occurs in the tale, just frustrated desire. The author paints lots of period details, which enhances the characters’ situations. The wit these people toss about is infectious.

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (grammar)
Who knew grammar could be hilarious? Well, I did. I felt a kinship with him. I only disagreed with him twice: for example, he allows colons to be dropped in the middle of a sentence. But to each their own. Highly recommended, especially for those in the know.

Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham (memoir)
Charming memoir by the fashion writer and milliner. I love it when he grandstands. He is Mr. Joie de Vivre, always looking on the bright side! 

Furious Hours by Casey Cep (nonfiction/true crime)
A biography of three people: murderer, lawyer, writer. Harper Lee is the focus of the second half. Penetrating writing. Thrilling nonfiction. The author explores her subjects microscopically and with verve. Capote seems to be a strong influence, hence Lee.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon (memoir)
Fun read. She is fair regarding her breakup. I felt a certain connection with her and her views about art, and her sensitivity.

Greek to Me by Mary Norris (memoir/grammar)
Delightful memoir about the author’s fascination with Greece, its language and alphabet, and the origin of words. Funny too. I love her easy, breezy style.

Hungry by Jeff Gordinier (nonfiction)
I have admired Jeff’s writing for over thirty years. It’s like butter in all its forms: sometimes clarified, sometimes compound, always delicious. His chronicle of an obsessed chef and how Redzepi’s restlessness and search for new flavors saved him from his middle age is a page-turner. His metaphors, similes, and word combos—plus references to music—make me smile a lot while I read. My face hurts.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (nonfiction novel)
One of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Capote’s language is thoroughly evocative: images, some gruesome, danced around in my mind every minute I was reading it. A truly American tragedy made famous by one of the best American writers.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (memoir)
This memoir is written in a new form, almost like lit crit with short chapters marked by telling titles. The author dissects the story of her domestic emotional and psychological abuse by her lover, clearly a fucked-up monster. Like a horror story, it unfolded with anticipatory dread. Brilliant!

I Remember by Joe Brainard (memoir)
The list of remembered seeming banalities becomes a litany of a young gay man’s life. Remarkable stream-of-consciousness quality.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (history)
A fun, sometimes witty presentation of the young Frenchman who enchanted Washington. As a result, I learned more about the Revolutionary War. She brings in comparisons to today’s events, which helps put things in perspective.

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen (novel)
A novel about coming out from a queer writer from Greenland. It’s powerful reading, about five characters negotiating love and loneliness. It reminded me of being closeted and yearning for touch.

Linocut for Artists & Designers by Nick Morley (art technique)
Comprehensive. Inspires me mucho. This is the book that made me believe in myself as a printmaker.

Love Stories by Jonathan Ned Katz (history)
Erudition is top-notch. Exceptional scholarship. Readable and relatable. The author focuses on the words men-loving men used to describe themselves and their feelings. Whitman and Symonds are the focus. I learned so much!

Mastering Colored Pencil by Lisa Dinhofer (art technique)
Indispensable. All your questions are answered, as well as those you didn’t know you had.

Mountain Language by Harold Pinter (play)
Reread on 12/20/19. Still chilling and very upsetting. Fuck totalitarian bullshit. Resist.

My Private Property by Mary Ruefle (essays)
I connected with these (she is in her fifties) and she writes about whatever is on her mind. The title essay about shrunken heads is perfect. I wish the collection were a little longer. 

Nanopedia by Charles Jensen (poetry)
These prose poems capture the zeitgeist to a tee. A nanopedia is a reference book with tiny entries. “Identity Theft” hit me in the gut. I love all the titles, as they relate to current topics and coinages.

No Straight Lines edited by Justin Hall (comics)
Comprehensive, funny, serious, diverse. I got a lot of great ideas from this collection of queer cartoons.

Notes from the Larder by Nigel Slater (cookbook)
A joyous celebration of ingredients throughout the year. This cookbook memoir instills in you the power to create something delicious from whatever is in the larder.

Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris (travel memoir)
A woman travels alone in early-eighties Mexico and Central America and records her observations and encounters. At times moving, the descriptions invoke all the senses vividly. (The smells made gag a little.) She is not sentimental, which I appreciated greatly. There’s a streak of magical realism that runs through it. I cried at the end.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (novel)
Some beautiful poetry among the prose making metaphorical connections. This sad tale of Vietnamese immigrants in Hartford and first love butting up against notions of masculinity is quite painful. I would like to read his book of poetry.

On the Move by Oliver Sacks (memoir)
A memoir about the late doctor’s books and peripatetic life. This is a perfect place to start for those who heave never read Sacks. He seemed to be a charming man. I now want to read all his other books.

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel (novel)
One of the best opening paragraphs ever, pitting idealism against the fucked-up world of capitalism in the eighties. The main characters are indelibly rendered—all flawed, all seeking something beyond their grasp. Looking forward to more by the author.

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder (novel)
This book took me by surprise: yes, funny and bitchy at times, but it was very serious. The characters are all caught in secrets and misunderstandings. Even though they appear as unlikable, they crave connection deep down. Even the minor characters were three dimensional.

A Recent Martyr by Valerie Martin (novel)
The plane landed, and I burst into tears as I read one of the final chapters. The plague is rampant as a trio of people encounter one another. Eros and Thanatos dance a slow pas de deux in this character-driven novel set in New Orleans where devotion and sex bleed into one. Brilliant. Moving.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
This book homes in on the zeitgeist: crazy motherfuckers who cling to conspiracy theories who eventually kill. This is the creepiest book I’ve ever read; the banality of the dialogue among the blandly drawn, greige-tone characters add to the overall chill. Also reminded me of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Second Empire by Richie Hofmann (poetry)
Utterly relatable. Seemingly everyday events and vistas are seen through the lens of time, uniting other ages with our own. Beautiful language. I could envision every word as each poem unfolded.

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (nonfiction)
The author explores historical colors with stories about their provenance. Delightful. Her style is breezy yet erudite, with a splash of cheek.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (novel)
A novel set in bayou Mississippi about ghosts, addiction, death, and sixth sense, with a road trip and images of brutal murders and abuse. It’s a lot to take, but the author works magic with her language and storytelling. Essentially a mother-and-son story, told from both points of view, plus a ghost’s. The claustrophobia and nausea I felt during the road-trip section made me realized how great this book is.

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (craft of writing)
Insightful, helpful, and direct, this book shows by example how you can be a better memoirist. Know who you are in the context of what you’re writing.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (novel)
Propulsive storytelling that humanizes the tale of Achilles and his companion Patroclus. Their love is unbreakable. Miller writes ostensibly about the nature of love and the things we do for it, unless honor and revenge get in the way.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (short stories)
I loved this collection of seven long stories about the relationships between daughters and immigrant mothers from China, living in Queens. Funny, brutal, tender—all in the lightly interconnected tales of self-discovery and surviving through hardship. Remarkable voice and vision.

Splendiferous Speech by Rosemarie Ostler (grammar and history)
What a fun book. Americanisms began with the introduction of Algonquian words (my favorite). I enjoy the author’s easy way with a turn of phrase. For the word nerd in all of us.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (novel)
Reality and possible psychosis are sometimes indistinguishable in this tale about a collegiate wrestler obsessed with winning. I shook reading some of the wrestling passages because I was so in his mind. Excellent debut. Good scary!

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (biography)
Six hundred pages pages of in-depth analysis of the plays and his relationships with others and himself. Seconal and alcohol combined creates paranoid delusions, which Williams was no stranger to (Bob Fosse, as well). This biography deals with the good and the bad and the ugly equally. It has inspired me to read as many Williams plays as I can.

Too Much Is Not Enough by Andrew Rannells (memoir)
This was a fun read. The voice in the book is the same as the voice in real life. Go after your dreams, motherfuckers! 

Volcano by Garrett Hongo (memoir)
This book moved me on many levels: remembering the Big Island—seeing it through the author’s eyes—was a trip. So poetic, so vivid. And his struggle with finding a sense of identity as he searches for the ghosts of his ancestors in Volcano. I now want to read his poetry.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan (history)
Brilliant and thorough scholarship, my former office mate wrote a kickass history of queer Brooklyn. It gets better with each chapter. This book is sure to be cited in the future. He uses the word fuck once, and brilliantly.

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (short stories)
Excellent, probing short stories that do not pull punches. “Orange Popsicles” and “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” left me shaking. The stories expose scars and battle wounds we normally wish were hidden by bandages. Beautiful, painful truths.

Winter by Ali Smith (novel)
Puns and politics abound in this post-Brexit novel about a British family quite estranged, and strange. I loved it. And the author’s style.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (memoir)
I read part of this in college for a women’s studies class and then bought the whole book. I read it only recently and have never read anything like it. Speechless. Breathtakingly painful and beautiful. The criticism of it is fascinating and telling.